City adopts five-year tourism strategy and focus on outdoor experiences

By Kirk Winter

The dry stone wall experience near Balsam Lake is the kind of 'experiential tourism' the city will focus on. Photo: Jamie Morris.

Council unanimously adopted a five-year tourism strategy that aims to make Kawartha Lakes a destination for tourists outside the busy summer season.

The strategy also focuses on how tourism operators might attract visitors for longer periods of time and package events where individuals might spend more money than they currently do in Kawartha Lakes.

Laurie McCarthy, economic development officer for Kawartha Lakes, told council that the strategy was supposed to be done for April of 2020, but the pandemic caused the timeline to be extended. The positive part of the pandemic interruption was that the impact of COVID-19 on tourism patterns were factored into the final report and the report was created with pandemics in mind.

Consultant Ken Lambert of KWL Advisory is advising the city on its strategy. “This is not a tourism marketing plan. We don’t need to grow visitors during the busy season, but we want to increase what they spend, particularly in the off-season. The target of this strategy is to create sustainable and diversified tourism,” said Lambert.

Lambert stressed that Kawartha Lakes is in an enviable position, being only two to three hours away from eight million customers living in the Greater Toronto Area. Those people are all potential visitors.

Aileen Murray of Mellor-Murray Consulting, who is also involved in advising council, then provided council with comparables of communities in Quebec, Michigan and New York, sharing the best practices these towns are using to attract off-season tourists and increase money spent during each visit.

“Our strategy is focused on increasing visitor spending,” Murray said. “Kawartha Lakes should be a leader in outdoor experiences where hopefully people will come and do a suite of activities, stay longer, stay in hotels and eat in local restaurants.”

“We need to make tourism sustainable, and we need to attract people looking for natural experiences,” Murray said. “We need to focus on experiential tourism where people get to touch, taste and feel what the Kawartha Lakes has to offer. We want people to come, stay and come back. We want to elevate and bundle offerings and spend money on product development and decide what existing community activities will attract tourists. We need to engage local partners to sell sustainability.”

When the presentation finished, Mayor Andy Letham said he liked the plan for its focus on the non-peak seasons and getting people to spend more money.

Councillor Doug Elmslie was not nearly as impressed, pointing out concerns he had with some of the content presented by the consultants.

Elmslie’s first issue was with the communities used as comparables by Lambert and Murray.

“I don’t want to quibble with the comparables (but)…Shawinigan Quebec was former Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s home riding for decades. The riding benefited from federal investments including a canoe museum and federal infrastructure money that has given it advantages that we don’t have. The Finger Lakes in New York are less than two hours from 14 million people living in New York City.”

Elmslie wondered why golf and curling were ignored as potential tourism destinations. Lambert responded that “everyone has that and they are not key elements that make Kawartha Lakes special.”

The councillor wanted more information from the consultants about attracting tourists to existing events in villages like Fenelon Falls.

“I have spoken to many local business people who tell me that events like Santa Day weekend are not good for business because people don’t take the time to shop,” Elmslie said. “We also don’t have enough large accommodation space in the city. How are we going to expand our accommodation space?”

Murray responded to one of the councillor’s concern saying, “We need to be able to turn those local events into events that cause folks to stay in the community for a retail experience and restaurant meals. Perhaps folks could have the opportunity the next day to participate in preparing a holiday meal hosted by Mrs. Claus.”

“Operators are going to have to bundle activities to attract tourists to stay longer, Lambert added.  “Hotels are not the future in this plan. Air BnBs are what people are looking for. People want to stay in a cottage when they visit Kawartha Lakes.”

Deputy-Mayor Patrick O’Reilly wondered what impact fall fairs and an event like the International Plowing Match will have on tourism and tourism spending. He also wanted to know if other communities are more successful than Kawartha Lakes in attracting these events, and if so what is their secret.

“Events like the IPM attract a lot of people,” Murray replied. “Those folks are there to do the business of farming. The city needs to find a way to get these folks away from the fairgrounds and into the community as a whole. As for big, big, big events like Boots and Hearts (a country music festival), Kawartha Lakes doesn’t really have the infrastructure to host something like that. The city should be focusing on growing small to medium sized events.”

O’Reilly wondered what key tourism assets Kawartha Lakes has that other areas don’t. Murray suggested as an example that each of the locks in the Trent-Severn system is a “phenomenal asset that needs to be exploited.”

Councillor Kathleen Seymour-Fagan supported the findings of the strategy saying, “We have so much to offer that people aren’t really aware of.”

Lambert said “The municipality needs to nurture and help grow these small events. We need to focus on the outdoors, the natural beauty and the interesting places to shop and eat in the many communities in Kawartha Lakes.”

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